Updated: Aug 6
BY: MICHAEL MILLSTEIN
While many of us anticipated that 2020 had cemented its legacy as the craziest year of the current decade, those in the college football world may argue that 2021 has well surpassed last year’s immense volatility. Earlier this year, college athletes could not make money, but now this article addresses how college football’s anti-geographic conference realignments could assist these very athletes in maximizing sponsorship deals. On June 21, 2020, the landscape of college sports changed forever when the Supreme Court issued a unanimous, 9-0 verdict against the NCAA in National Collegiate Athletic Assoc. v Alston et al. In a puissant opinion authored by Justice Gorsuch, the Supreme Court held that, under antitrust principles, the NCAA’s cap on how student athletes may earn compensation is a direct violation of the Sherman Act. The Sherman Act, ironic in its scope of competitiveness, lays the foundation for free competition in interstate commerce. Thanks to the Supreme Court, athletes may benefit off their name, image, and likeness (“NIL”); an individual’s “personal brand.”
Now, nearly four full months removed from the verdict, there has been a shift in attention in how to maximize revenue for student athletes as they enter into these NIL deals. Some have taken advantage of their massive social media followings and promoted products as influencers on their Tik Tok or Instagram, while others have signed more traditional sponsorship deals such as representing adult beverages. However, there may be a new, more subtle way for athletes to maximize their NIL revenue, and it stems from maximum exposure. This massive exposure comes from the new conference realignments in college football.
Traditionally, college football has featured conferences with schools in close geographic proximity to one another due to a plethora of reasons such as minimizing travel costs, bolstering rivalries, and ensuring time to focus on academics. In spite of college football’s emphasis on tradition, conferences such as the South Eastern Conference (“SEC”), the Atlantic Coast Conference (“ACC”), and the BIG 10 (“B10”) (the geographically midwestern conference) have admitted schools with little to no geographic proximity in recent years. Earlier this year, the University of Texas and Oklahoma University respectively ignited the inevitable wildfire of realignment when they both filed applications to join the SEC, subsequently exiting the BIG 12 (“B12”). Now, in an effort to maintain their status as a power five conference, the B12, also mostly comprised of Southern-Midwest teams, have invited Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah), University of Central Florida (Orlando, Florida) and the University of Cincinnati to join their conference. While this may close the chapter of the geographic college football conference alignment, it opens the door to a strategic new way for college athletes to profit off their NIL.
Despite social media’s endless reach, making athletes all around the world relevant to those who choose to engage with them online, it may be hard to invest in an athlete who plays so far away. As is tradition in all sports, fans root for the team in their hometown; for the players in their backyard. While we may appreciate the talent of others around the league, their reach is limited unless they reach a level of maximum stardom, reserved for the few and the elite. For almost all players in college football, they have yet to ascend to that level. Therefore, a linebacker for the University of Utah may only attract NIL deals from companies who conduct business in Utah and the overall region of the Pacific 12 (“PAC 12”) conference which they play in. Therefore, their opportunities to sign deals may be geographically limited. This is where conference realignment presents exciting new opportunities, and may help strengthen programs relocating to conferences where they have a substantial geographic separation.
If that University of Utah linebacker is still playing at a time when the University of Utah decides to join a new conference, perhaps the SEC, the amount of companies which may look to sign that linebacker to an NIL deal grows exponentially. Not only does that linebacker have relevance to the State of Utah, but also to the entire Southeast region due to his time playing against teams such as Florida, Alabama, and Georgia. Two major trends may emerge from this and are worth keeping an eye on. First and foremost, does the geographic exposure create a new avenue for college athletes to increase their exposure, either strengthening existing NIL deals or putting themselves in better positions to obtain a deal? Secondly, if this geographic theory does benefit college athletes, will we start to see a shift in the major powers of college football, and have new schools, who travel great lengths to play their opponents, find themselves ranked amongst the elite? Though 2022 will have a hard time outdoing the madness which has unfolded in 2020 and 2021, it could be the start of a new era in which geographically separated schools become the best financial opportunities for college athletes.
 Nat’l Collegiate Athletic Assoc. v. Alston et al., 594 U.S. __ (2021).  Id.; The Antitrust Laws, Federal Trade Commission (last visited Sept. 29 2021), https://www.ftc.gov/tips-advice/competition-guidance/guide-antitrust-laws/antitrust-laws.  The Antitrust Laws, Federal Trade Commission (last visited Sept. 29 2021), https://www.ftc.gov/tips-advice/competition-guidance/guide-antitrust-laws/antitrust-laws.  Erin Sorenson, What You Need to Know about Name, Image and Likeness, Hail Varsity (June 29, 2021), https://hailvarsity.com/volleyball/what-you-need-to-know-about-name-image-and-likeness/#:~:text=Name%2C%20image%20and%20likeness%20(NIL,for%20participating%20in%20a%20sport.  See Ross Dellenger, Behind the Scenes as the Cavinder Twins Became the Faces of Day 1 of NIL, Sports Illustrated (July 1, 2021), https://www.si.com/college/2021/07/01/hanna-haley-cavinder-twins-nil-deal-basketball-tiktok; Scooby Axson, Florida Atlantic QB N’Kosi Perry signs name, image and likeness deal with alcohol company, USA Today (Sept. 8, 2021), https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ncaaf/2021/09/08/florida-atlantic-nkosi-perry-nil-deal-beer-company/5770694001/.  Alan Blinder et al., Oklahoma and Texas to Join SEC and Add to a Juggernaut, N.Y. Times (July 30, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/30/sports/ncaafootball/oklahoma-texas-sec-college-sports.html.  Id.  Id.  David Cobb et al., Texas, Oklahoma join SEC: Longhorns, Sooners accept invitations as Big 12 powers begin new wave of realignment, CBS (July 30, 2021), https://www.cbssports.com/college-football/news/texas-oklahoma-join-sec-longhorns-sooners-accept-invitations-as-big-12-powers-begin-new-wave-of-realignment/.  See Madeline Coleman, Big 12 Will Have Two Divisions as Four New Teams Join The Conference, BYU AD Said, Sports Illustrated (Sept. 10, 2021), https://www.si.com/college/2021/09/10/big-12-will-have-two-football-divisions-conference-invites-four-new-teams-byu-ad.